In my review of Paul Murray’s marvelous novel Skippy Dies, I mention that it is the all-time high scorer on the “first-sentence test.” Maybe we should talk a little bit more about that test and how it works.
The first-sentence test is for novels and short fiction collections; for non-fiction other criteria are used. The crux of the problem is that when you pick up a novel by an author you have not yet read, there is very little way of knowing what writing style lies inside. Will you like it? Will you hate it? Is it flippant, grating, pretentious, or crude? The first-sentence test has a way of revealing the answer.
To see why, let’s break down my all-time top-scoring first sentence, from Skippy Dies.
“Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair.”
This works on a lot of different levels.
1. It mentions doughnuts. Okay, that’s not a real reason, but you’re thinking “admit it, Brian, you only like it because it mentions doughnuts,” so I wanted to deny that right at the start.
2. It drops you in mid-story with little pretension. There aren’t paragraphs explaining who Skippy and Ruprecht are or setting up the story; there’s no “So then they decided to have a doughnut-eating race.” The use of the phrase “one evening” imparts a “once upon a time” quality which excuses the author from having to dull us with exposition and allows him to get on with the story.
3. It suggests a casual narrative style. There are no elaborate phrases or blatant attempts to impress. There are no crap metaphors begging for attention (see below). The sentence is neither self-consciously too short nor self-consciously too long. Its length is perfectly judged, its authorial voice so simple, so unremarkable as to be miraculous. We discover with no fuss exactly what’s going on.
4. Although Skippy and Ruprecht have not been introduced to us, and although I usually think creating mysteries with a first sentence (who are these people?) is a cheap trick, we actually do know who these people are. They are the type of people who would have a doughnut-eating race. What more do we need?
5. This one is easy to miss: the sentence is daring. The title of the novel is Skippy Dies. And in the first sentence, in the first sentence, Skippy is already dying. That takes balls, people. It takes extraordinary courage. Think about it: imagine writing a novel and killing your main protagonist, indeed your title character, in the very first sentence. And then basing the whole novel on it. I think this, more than anything else, is what made my jaw drop and my heart flutter and my brain say “!!!!!” and my wallet open up and my hands carry the book out of the store.
Now, in contrast, let’s look at some more first sentences and what’s wrong or right with them.
“The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.” (Franzen, The Corrections) Yeah, a sentence fragment. Worse, it’s a forced metaphor for weather, and not only is weather boring, but metaphors should feel natural and right. Worse, the next sentence is “You could feel it.” I actually felt personally offended. I wanted to shout, “No, I couldn’t, you solicitous prick!” Eight more sentence fragments follow, including “the nasal contention of a leaf blower,” and it makes me want to hurt somebody.
“London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth…” (Dickens, Bleak House) Bleak House begins with a whole page of sentence fragments. Unlike Franzen’s, though, Dickens’ do a great job setting the scene and telling us where, when, and why we are on the book’s first page. Dickens doesn’t try telling “you” what to feel and he doesn’t make up nonsensical metaphors about leaf blowers. Instead, at the bottom of the page, he writes an entire paragraph of variations on the word “fog.” It’s breathtaking.
I love David Foster Wallace, but this is one of the most godawful first sentences in the history of literature. It comes from his unfinished and unedited but posthumously published anyway novel The Pale King, whose publishers had a hand in ordering the chapters. I desperately hope DFW would have deleted this abomination had he lived–it tries too hard. It screams “trying too hard.” Strained descriptors, strained metaphors, a preposterous list, all taking forever to read. Wallace had once criticized Updike for “so many modifiers…so much subordination,” and I have to imagine he would have rejected this sentence on the same grounds. It is no surprise to flip ahead to the second chapter, which starts on the very next page, and discover that Chapter 2 has a truly radiant first sentence in the deeply funny DFW tradition:
This one works because it’s funny and because it prepares you for Wallace’s style, which is observant of the strangest of details, the ones we would remember in real life.
This one is working on several levels. The genealogical aspect subconsciously evokes epics, even the Bible; the parenthetical establishes who the narrator and reader are and where they fit into the story’s time-frame; the final line indicates that a big story is coming, and the “dark and tragic death” line reassures us that it is going to be a juicy read. Moreover the narrator has already assured us that he knows exactly how he’s going to tell the story. Marvelous.
“It was love at first sight.” The effect of the first line of Catch-22 is to make us want to read the second sentence, which is, “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” This is not at all what we’re expecting. It generates a mystery which needs solving, but not the “gosh, author, just get on with it” kind of mystery, as when novelists think it’s cool to spend a whole first chapter eschewing the hero’s name or what room they’ve just stepped into or why they’re holding a knife. No, it’s the sheer eccentric weirdness of Catch-22‘s first lines that makes the mystery of them an irresistible hook.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” (Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera) There’s no mystery here–we find out “his” name in the next sentence–but instead a very peculiar insight into his mind, and the sense that there’s a very good story behind this odd connection. And the juxtaposition is kind of funny, I think.
“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” (Delillo, Underworld) Halfway hopeful is how everybody describes Americans. And besides, who is the narrator supposed to be addressing? Why is he being so rude? Isn’t that rude or is it just me? And how does he know that “he speaks in my voice”? And who the hell is “he” anyways?
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice) Come on, folks. This is genius. Most of all because what Austen really means is “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an eligible young woman wants nothing more than a single man in possession of a good fortune.”
So here are some lessons learned for first sentences.
1. Nothing fancy. Pretension is right out. The first sentence should be a good example of the kind of sentence the author writes, and reflect the general virtues of the authorial style. But it should not try too hard; it shouldn’t act like it knows it’s the first sentence. It need not draw attention to itself, because it’s already going to get all the attention it needs. The only time your opener should say “look at me” is if you’re Jane Austen and you’ve just thought of something wickedly brilliant.
2. No stupid mysteries. I don’t want to be asking “who the hell is he?” five seconds after starting a book. I don’t want to be dropped into a story mid-action without some kind of way to understand what’s happening.
3. A unique or intriguing thought is the best substitute for actual plot. If your first sentence doesn’t get the book going, doesn’t get the party started, it should at least serve as an appetizer for my brain.
More broadly, there is in fact only one criterion for a novel’s first sentence.
1. The first sentence should make you want to read the second sentence.
Sounds simple. Only, it’s not.